BOSTON -- Are there guns in your investment portfolio?
It's an issue that some politicians and gun-control advocates are raising after recent mass shootings prompted calls for tougher laws.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote letters to six mutual fund companies asking them to sell their stock in gun manufacturers Smith & Wesson, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. It's a critical concern in Chicago, where more than 500 people were murdered last year.
Fund companies should "send a clear and unambiguous message to the entire gun industry that investors will no longer support companies that profit from gun violence," Emanuel wrote in his letters last week.
Other city leaders, including those in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, are considering similar steps with their pension funds.
Gun control is the kind of issue that can wake investors up to the fact that money in a fund portfolio or 401(k) affects more than just their retirement security. The financial markets support all kinds of companies, including many that an investor may believe aren't contributing to the greater good.
But whatever one thinks about gun control, removing such an investment from a portfolio on moral grounds isn't always a simple matter. There are potential costs from putting your principles before profits.
Recognize that over the last 10 years Smith & Wesson has posted an average annualized return of 17 percent, compared with the 8 percent return of the broader market. Similarly, Sturm Ruger, the largest publicly traded gun company, has returned an annualized 23 percent over that time. The vast majority of gun manufacturers are privately held.
There would be other potential costs if fund companies or 401(k) managers were to sell gun maker stocks in response to the recent controversy. These companies have obligations to serve the financial interests of vast numbers of individual fund shareholders and plan participants with varying opinions about guns.
For employers sponsoring 401(k) plans, their hands can be tied unless the plan established a mandate to avoid investing in gun makers, says Kathleen McBride, founder of consulting firm FiduciaryPath.
She advises financial professionals who are fiduciaries, a legal designation requiring them to act in the best financial interests of their clients. That obligation is a chief concern cited by Vanguard, among the six fund companies that Emanuel is pressuring. A Vanguard spokeswoman said mutual funds "are not optimal agents to address social change."
A spokesman for American Funds, which also received a letter from Emanuel, said: "If social issues may have an effect on the investment potential of a company, we take those issues into account as part of the investment process."
For example, a stock fund manager might expect that gun laws are likely to become more restrictive. That would cut into industry sales, leading the manager to conclude that stocks of gun makers are bad long-term investments. Such a fund manager could justify selling such stocks as beneficial for shareholders. But the manager wouldn't be justified in selling simply because of moral objections.
Making changes only gets more complicated with low-cost index funds, which own all the stocks in a given market index.
If such a fund doesn't track the index closely, then it ceases to be an index fund -- no matter whether some of the stocks may be viewed as morally objectionable by some investors.
For example, Vanguard is the biggest manager of index funds, and its $5.4 billion Small-Cap Index Fund (NAESX) is the largest fund owner of Smith & Wesson shares, according to Morningstar.
The fund, a common investment option in 401(k) plans, recently held 1.6 percent of Smith & Wesson's outstanding shares. But that stock made up just 0.04 percent of the fund's total assets, because the fund owns more than 1,000 stocks in the small-company index that it tracks.
In fact, with $2 trillion in assets, Vanguard owns stakes in nearly every publicly traded U.S. company. That's also the case with other large fund companies offering index funds that own hundreds or even thousands of stocks. The more broadly diversified a fund is, the greater the likelihood you'll find something in the portfolio that you dislike.
How to invest with a conscience
So how might an investor avoid any links to gun makers in a portfolio?
If you prefer low-cost index investing but don't want to invest in guns, choose funds that track large-company indexes. Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger aren't big enough to be included in those large-cap indexes.
If you want active management, check the fund's latest holdings online for any gun stocks. Chances are small that you'll find any, but be aware that the manager could invest in them at some point, unless the fund has a specific mandate to avoid gun makers.
Or, better yet, invest in funds that explicitly avoid certain stocks based on moral criteria. Some larger fund companies, including Vanguard, offer funds that seek to invest based on social objectives. And dozens of smaller companies specialize in socially responsible investing, offering funds that screen out everything from gun- and tobacco-related stocks to companies that charge interest on loans. There are also lower-cost funds that track indexes of stocks limited to those deemed socially responsible.
If you're a 401(k) investor and find that your plan doesn't offer such options, ask your employer to consider adding them.
In the end, know that most mutual funds won't make distinctions between which kinds of investments serve a greater moral good and which don't.